For the last several years the most popular way to enjoy "Grand Theft Auto" in groups has been to sit on a couch with friends, taking turns orchestrating and observing mayhem.
On Monday, Rockstar Games reps showed MTV News a new way by offering two hours of hands-on play with several multiplayer modes in "Grand Theft Auto IV." (Read about our earlier single-player experience with the game.)
"For us, it's about how you get those moments that you've always experienced in single-player into multiplayer," Rockstar Vice President of Product Development Jeronimo Barrera told us.
(Check out new images from "GTA IV.")
That seems right. These are the kinds of things that happened during our multiplayer session with the M-rated game:
» Barrera, playing as a guy named "Undead CJ," tried to lift off from a dock in a military chopper while taking heavy fire and managed to crack the tail off the chopper, spinning out of control into the river.
» MTV News, playing as a woman named "Monsters," burned rubber in a hijacked "GTA" police car to escape the pursuit of a squad of cop cars and helicopters, driving through roadblocks, foliage and hot-dog carts, into the middle of a baseball field. (This kind of thing might be standard in "GTA," but this time, the three other characters in the car, who shot at the cops during the chase, were controlled by real people.)
» A reporter from Yahoo, playing as a guy named "Shoplifting" (these names were custom-made, if you can't tell), decided to see what would happen if he jumped out of a helicopter while flying over Liberty City's version of the Empire State Building.
» Four no-good lowlifes (played by MTV News, Rockstar and Yahoo) fled from the police (played by members of the Rockstar marketing department), only to be picked off one by one en route to a waiting speedboat. The final lowlife, Undead CJ, made it onto the getaway boat and motored away, only to get shot in the back by the law, seconds from escape.
It was all standard "GTA" mayhem, choreographed into modes called Cops N Crooks, Hangman's NOOSE and Team Deathmatch. The details of some of the game's modes involve rules that no solo "GTA" player would ever follow without being forced. (Who would race around Central Park three times without being told to?)
Nevertheless, our two hours at Rockstar showed that the secret of "GTA IV" multiplayer is the same as the secret of single-player: Whatever the rules are in "GTA," the most fun may be attained by not following them.
For example, Barrera and another Rockstar rep seemed to have a jolly time avoiding the actual point of a "GTA" multiplayer race set in the Liberty City airport. In theory, this race was set up to pit four players on motorcycles and mopeds on a three-lap race across and around an active airport runway. While Monsters was busy finding a fueling truck to race instead and Shoplifting ditched his bike to putter along in a luggage-cart cab, Undead CJ was ignoring his lap count to focus on creating a multivehicle roadblock. Then he stood there with a pistol, daring people to complete their laps.
So technically — and only technically — this is how "GTA" multiplayer is supposed to work: It consists of between 10 and 20 modes, according to Rockstar, all of which are set in Liberty City on the same terrain as the single-player game. Up to 16 players can play the adversarial multiplayer modes. Up to four players can participate in humans-versus-computer co-op modes. These modes feature characters from the single-player game. An example is Hangman's NOOSE, which tasks four players with rescuing under-siege crime boss Kenny Petrovic from a SWAT raid surrounding his private jet, and then bolting to a safe part of Liberty City. The multiplayer modes cannot be played split-screen, so forget about playing this with buddies on a single couch. The modes are online only and identical for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, according to Rockstar reps.
"GTA IV" multiplayer is accessible via an in-game cell phone. Players can bring up their cell phone with the press of a button and set up a multiplayer match. They can customize an avatar with name, hair, head, torso, legs, glasses and hat settings, gaining more cosmetic options as they level up their multiplayer progress. Character levels start at zero and move up to 10, as players accrue cash from downed opponents in multiplayer or by completing goals. Progress can occur in myriad ways. Winning that airport race could be lucrative, but so could making like Undead CJ, who shot the competitors and collected their cash.
The game is unusual in that all of its multiplayer modes are made to be played on the same map as the single-player version. That's not the norm, as players of multiplayer maps in "Call of Duty 4" and "Halo 3" know. The "GTA IV" design idea, like that of the "GTA"-esque "Crackdown" last year, is to use the city's architecture and the familiarity players gain by playing solo campaigns to the advantage of anyone who then dips into a multiplayer match. "If you've played single-player, you know where you are," Barrera said. "It can be an advantage."
The use of the same game city for solo and multiplayer modes stems from work on the recent "GTA" games on the PlayStation Portable, Barrera said. Those titles allowed Rockstar to experiment, and what the studio learned was that players needed to be given access to as much of the game city as possible for the multiplayer action to feel like "GTA" action. It should feel like one grand playing field. "There's nothing in the multiplayer that's not already in the single-player," Barrera said, noting that all of Liberty City is open during multiplayer modes. The only thing keeping players, say, near the Statue of Happiness island during a Deathmatch session is the way the game produces weapons and brings players back to life only on the island. But those who want to wander elsewhere, find a boat and sail back — or sail away — can.
Some elements from single-player are slightly reconfigured. In races, players can drive over weapons to pick them up and use them from their cars. Characters can run with the press of a button rather than with constant tapping, as is needed in single-player.
The new multiplayer aspects of "GTA IV" have been developed with an added touch of mercy. In a step almost unheard-of in a multiplayer console game, "GTA IV" will include a tutorial that pits players against computer-controlled characters in order to show them the ropes before they inevitably meet some tough online competitors.
The full scope of "GTA IV" multiplayer hasn't been revealed. Even just a few weeks before release, the game isn't spilling all its secrets, and that includes the other multiplayer modes. "We put in as many options as we can," Barrera said. "We think this is totally fun."
And how would he distinguish the "GTA" multiplayer mode from that of other games? "Not tacked on," he said. "It fits seamlessly into the game — the variety and ultimately the freedom that players are going to enjoy for a very long time."
Multiplayer feels like the wildest action of "GTA," minus the story driving it. More will be revealed as the game approaches release on the PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 29.
Check out the Multiplayer blog, updated daily, for even more gaming coverage.